The individual vs. a bigger power: a recurring theme in the documentaries of Japanese filmmaker Hyûga Fumiari. But what is this bigger power? Documentaries, steeped and submerged in some of the rawest crises of our times, have shown audiences what may constitute this ‘bigger power’ – it could be banal and systemic, structural, unapologetic in its malevolence, deceptive and cunning, intergenerational. 

For Hyûga, the bigger power could have these characteristics, or none at all – he would not define or restrict what it is, creating a heterogeneity of meanings. But what he would show the people is the unique benevolence of the individual that tries to fight it, which is exactly what he did in his latest documentary I Am A Comedian (2022).

The documentary chronicles the pertinacious, obdurate efforts of Daisuke Muramoto to reinvent comedy in Japan. From someone who used to be at the top of the scene, booking hundreds of appearances on TV left and right since 2015, Muramoto began losing his audience in 2020 after he started to inject political issues and social commentary into his act. He would attack the fervour of fanaticism for then prime minister Shinzo Abe and call for the legalisation of medical marijuana, even if he claims that he himself has never smoked weed in his entire life.

He would be asked by some of those who watched him to stop “using” comedy to push his own views and ideals. In other societies particularly those in the West where comedy has been invariably used to critique the status quo, political humour is hardly discouraged nor censored. But in Japan, as the documentary shows, humour is humour and politics is politics. The two exist in disparate worlds. 

For someone who needs an audience to keep going and to literally survive, it could be easy to dismiss Muramoto’s turn to the political as merely performative. But he has gravitas, one that he earned from knowing the people who suffered themselves. In the documentary, which was shown in the 2022 Tokyo International Film Festival, we get to see Muramoto visiting the survivors of the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident and listening to them. He dines and drinks with the Zainichi Koreans in Japan and seeks their thoughts about comfort women and the discrimination they have experienced. He doesn’t exploit their stories for laughs but makes the public aware of how laughably incorrigible the government and the public’s treatment of their plight is.

 Hyûga explores the connection that Muramoto was able to build with them. But the documentary becomes more intimate and introspective when the filmmaker delves into the connection that Muramoto has with his parents and how his father’s own view of the role of comedy as devoid of any real power pushes him to make it even more political. 

This is a testament to how Hyûga, as a filmmaker, dissects and exposes the ‘bigger power’ by focusing on the individual. He makes use of the film as a communicative vehicle for the individual to link his personal dreams, agenda and identity to the very forces which could destroy them. 

In Tokyo Kurds, his 2017 short documentary about Turkish refugees in Japan which became a full-blown feature in 2021, the young refugees dream of obtaining a visa to stay in Japan but they also want to fight the religious extremists that drove them away from their home.

I Am A Comedian

In I Am A Comedian, Muramoto doesn’t want to join the field of politics to reform Japanese governance; instead, he wants to wield comedy as a weapon to influence public opinion and change the tide. The stand-up comedian has lost people who dared to listen to his jokes, but he is not stopping until one day, Japan is ready for comedy that compels them to confront the nation’s pain. In this interview, Hyûga tells me that he does not only want Muramoto to succeed, he also wants to see more Muramotos show what having a discussion about the nation’s state truly means.  

What made you want to create a film about the strengths and struggles of Daisuke Muramoto?

I love US stand-up comedy. I’m working with the TV program production company called Documentary Japan. At first, I wanted to do a program about Iranian comedy. After 9/11, there’s hatred against people from the Middle East and American stand-up comedians were fighting the hatred through stand-up-comedy and that was so interesting and I was talking about this with my colleague. Then my colleagues and peers told me about Muramoto’s solo live performances. That was the first time I went to his solo live act. 

And of course, his material or the routine was interesting, his talk was interesting but his energy was so overwhelming. That is why I wanted to shoot him. 

Muramoto’s comedy is very, very political. What is it about comedy that makes it a powerful tool for political discourse?

Japanese people aren’t used to discussing political or social issues. There’s a high school kid who came to Muramoto’s solo live performance and he’s from Fukushima and so after 3/11 (the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which occurred on March 11 2011) whenever he was talking about the nuclear power plant or the disaster every year, his classmates didn’t like it, didn’t want to talk about it. It’s not a boring issue, but why do you have to talk about that? It’s not like too much work. But it’s a too difficult thing for them. 

I think [having] a discussion is to seek a new value. But in Japan, people think that whenever you discuss, the important thing is which value wins. It’s like a debate. But even if you win, that doesn’t mean that person is right. Or that everything will be resolved. So Japanese people don’t discuss things that much and they are thinking news is news, comedy is comedy. It’s a separate thing. 

So in Japan, if these comedians, singers or actors make political statements, people tend to say even now, oh, you’re just a comedian. Why go political?

Satire has long been a deeply entrenched form of comedy in some societies. I was surprised to hear, based on what you said, that this may not be the case in Japan. 

This is why Muramoto is special. 

Do you think there will be other Muramotos in the future? Is that something you want to see?

I don’t know. I want to, of course I want to.

In your other film, Tokyo Kurds, there was a very specific statement from one of the young people you interviewed who said “I want to fight the ISIS.” In this case, was there also a specific line from Muramoto which stuck with you, which made you say, I really want to make a documentary about him?

So the theme for Tokyo Kurds and I Am A Comedian is actually the same: it’s the individual facing a bigger power. In Tokyo Kurds, this person’s dream didn’t come true, then he said he wants to fight the ISIS, because his ethnic identity is there. This ethnic identity is so big, it was almost swallowing up the individual. The society has this image of Muramoto, who is very famous in Japan but he was trying to face that image and that was very interesting for me. Muramoto doesn’t want society to determine his value. He wants himself to determine his own value. 

Were there any lines or jokes from him though that stayed with you? 

There was dialogue in the movie – he got out of the countryside in Fukui and he was sort of a loser and a talentless guy, but he got out of that place and he’s like, here I am, I became bigger and I changed. So if I go somewhere else, probably I could change again and could grow again. 

He said people elect politicians, but the feeling of people – this is what a comedian could create. That is the job of the comedian and it’s the coolest job in the world. 

I Am A Comedian

In the documentary, one woman asked Muramoto what he feels when he couldn’t express himself, to which Muramoto responded: “I had to refine my message.” As a filmmaker, did you ever see yourself in the same position where you had to ‘refine’ your message because of external forces, barriers and other reasons?

Whenever I convey a message, it doesn’t have to be with words, but I just want to convey a feeling. Of course, in order to convey my message visually, then of course I have to refine my message sometimes. I think all arts and expression is the same. To make or create new values is our job. 

As an artist, as a filmmaker, what kind of new values do you want to create?

What I feel in my daily life, when I sympathise with something, I get curious about something, I want to suggest this feeling, but whether or not it would become a new value, it would all depend on whether the movie I made would remain [relevant] even after 20, 30 years. So we cannot say as of now. 

Time will tell.

The audience would decide if it is a new value for them.

About The Author

Purple Romero is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist who writes about subcultures and films. His articles have been published in Film Inquiry, IONCINEMA, Asian Movie Pulse, High On Films, and UK-based publications Little White Lies and The New Voice.

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